Bishop reminds us that this time of waiting is a gift
In her sermon this week (24 May), Bishop Cherry talks about waiting.
She draws similarities between the days after Ascension and the strange times we find ourselves in now, reminding us that “It’s a waiting time that’s an opportunity, not to plan what we’re going to do and how it’s going to be, but to pray and to wait on God‘s empowering.”
You can read the full sermon below and watch the service.
Easter 7 – The Sunday after The Ascension.
One of the most striking things about these days after the ascension is that the disciples are told to wait, and not only to wait but to stay where they are. We have to wonder why that was. They’ve encountered and lived alongside the risen Jesus for 40 days. The resurrection has become, if you like, their new normal. The world, to them at least, is now looking very different to what it had in the days before that first Easter Day. Their lives have been turned upside down by this extraordinary experience, and their minds opened to understand the scriptures in the light of what they now know. And here, in our passage from Acts today, they witness the Jesus they’d come to know being lifted up and taken from them into heaven. These are life-changing and indeed world-view changing experiences not to keep to yourself, but news to share.
So why does Jesus order them to stay put in Jerusalem and wait? Or, to put it another way, what is the point of, the reason for, those 10 days or so? Why not send the Holy Spirit straight away so that they could get on with the task they’d been given?
Well we can note from the record in Acts that the disciples went back to Jerusalem and ‘constantly devoted themselves to prayer’. These days were clearly important; vital, even. It was a time of coming together, of being bound together as a community through prayer, and through their prayer they were being prepared and made ready for what was to come. Given the joy and the exhilaration that they were experiencing as a result of what they’d witnessed and come to understand, it would have been tempting to scatter; to go off, each doing their own thing, telling their stories in the towns and villages round about. But what they needed was a time of consolidation, if you like. A time of being solely focused on this unique experience, that they’d shared, that bound them together, that united them not just to one another, but to the God they’d come to know in Jesus.
Those of you who have made a retreat may have experienced something similar. We take ourselves away from the distractions of the world and stay in one place as a way of enabling us to focus solely on God and to open ourselves more fully to his love and grace and mercy. It’s a time when we can find ourselves living and breathing our prayer; we’re surrounded by it and held in it. And strangely, as well as finding ourselves drawn closer to God, we can find ourselves drawn closer to those others who are making their retreat alongside us. Even though we don’t know one another and don’t speak with one another, there’s something extraordinarily powerful about worshipping together, eating together and living in prayer together that binds and unites us, in that time and place.
These days between the Ascension and the outpouring of the spirit at Pentecost must have been this and so much more for those disciples, who’d lived together, and alongside Jesus himself, for three years.
So what of us?
Well, there’s a sense in which this is very timely, not just for us in the Diocese of Monmouth but for the whole church. We’re in a waiting time. Or, at least, we might see this time as a waiting time. There has, of course, been much activity, as the church has sought to maintain its prayer and worship, its mission and ministry in these strange and disconcerting days of the pandemic. But in all of that, there’s been an enforced staying where we are. We’ve been told to stay at home and not to move around. We’ve been waiting, many of us anxious and fearful, for what our new normal is going to look like; wondering how and when a different pattern of daily life might evolve over the next weeks and months and how that’s going to impact on the life of the church. It’s a waiting time that’s an opportunity, not to plan what we’re going to do and how it’s going to be, but to pray and to wait on God‘s empowering.
What we must not do is to plan for a return to the old normal; what was the norm only three months ago. For the old normal will not be there and, in any case, that would be to miss the new that God is calling us into. Life is going to be different. We know that. We’re not sure yet quite how, but we know that on many levels it won’t and can’t be the same. Despite (or perhaps because of) the hardships and the challenges that many, many people are going to face in terms of finance, employment and life-style, there’s a hope that we’ll be able to build on all the good that has come out of this awful pandemic - the kindness, the generosity, the sacrificial giving, the creativity, the amazing ways that people have found to come together, to make connections and build community even as we’ve been isolated physically from one another. There’s hope and not a little determination that together we’ll be able to build a better, more just, more equitable society as a result of what we’ve experienced together. We, the church must be part of that.
But we also need to look at ourselves, and this waiting time, this time when we can’t do all the things that we’ve been used to doing, is time to be open to where God might be leading us; a time to devote ourselves to prayer, so that not only are we united and bound together as the people of God - the body of Christ - but we’re prepared and expectant for God to do a new thing and ready to join in with him as his witnesses. We don’t yet know what that will look like, though I think we do know that there’ll be challenges in relation to attendance, finance and keeping at least some of our buildings open. But rather than hark back to how it was, we might ask ourselves:
What are we learning during this waiting time? What are the experiences that we have shared and are sharing, despite not being able to gather together, that are nevertheless binding us to one another and to God? How has this enforced closure of our buildings and our enforced separation from one another allowed others to come in, see what we do, join us in our worship, be touched by the grace and gospel of Jesus?
This is a call to prayer - to an openness to God. We need to be still enough to listen and to discern where the new life is and what God is inviting us into. We need the eyes of faith to see what God is opening up for us, where the opportunities are for us to grasp. We need to be united in our prayer together and be ready and prepared to join in with what God is doing out there as well as amongst ourselves.
This is a waiting time, a vital time. Let’s use it, not so much to plan, because that will be done from our limited imaginations and risk leading us backwards. Rather, let us use it to pray, to be bound as one by the grace of God and to be ready to go wherever he will lead us.
I leave you with part of a prayer from the Iona Community in Scotland.
You keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait for the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we must go,
Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So, thank you...for the waiting time.
Let’s thank God, indeed, for this waiting time; this gift of an opportunity. Amen